Conflicted writing: NGOs, African Literature and Autonomy. Review of Au-dessous du volcan

AiW Guest: Madeline Bedecarré

Note de la rédaction: L’équipe d’Africa in Words est ravie de présenter aujourd’hui notre premier post en deux langues ! Pour la version en français de ce compte-rendu, cliquez ici.

Part anthology, part conference proceedings, part literary manifesto, Au-dessous du volcan, edited by the French specialist of African literature Dr. Maëline Le Lay and French diplomat Alexandre Mirlesse, is a hybrid text. Most significantly, this publication thoughtfully engages in recent debates about the proliferation of NGOs in Africa and their influence on literary production on the continent. Mirlesse and Le Lay’s critique regarding the weight of NGOs in shaping literary production in the region intervenes in a body of work that Sarah Brouillette pulls together in her provocative article On the African Literary Hustle. Building off of Doreen Strauhs’s terminology (the acronym LINGO–literary NGO–means “a nongovernmental organization with a focus on the production and promotion of literary talent, events, and publications that is situated in the nonprofit sector”), Kate Wallis’s work, and the writer Ikhide Ikheloa’s essay condemning the Caine Prize shortlist for 2011 “How Not to Write About Africa,” Brouillette explores what she calls “the NGOization of African literature”–the fact that contemporary English-language African literature quite literally depends on “NGOs and private foreign foundations” funded by “private donors, mainly but not exclusively American”.  I see Au-Dessous du Volcan as making an important and timely contribution to this conversation which has until now focused solely on Anglophone African literature. 

Cover of Au-Dessous du volcan

The book recaps a three-day event held in June 2018 at the Institut Français in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, which involved a series of panels and creative writing workshops run by six writers, Guillaume Jan, Blaise Ndala, Jean-Pierre Orban, Élise Rida Musomandera, Roland Rugero and Joëlle Sambi  – most of whom live and publish in Europe or Canada- for a group of twelve amateur wordsmiths from Bukuvu, Goma, Butembo, Bujumbura, and Kigali: Natacha Songore, Mathe Kisughu, Parfait Nzeyimana, Kennedy Muhindo Wema, Thierry Nkinzo Mihigo, Patrick Zézé, Maxime Kabemba Maneno, Joyeux Juwe Kazimbe, Claudia Munyengabe, Dominique Celis, Butoa Balingene, and Natacha Muziramakenga.

What ties together this disparate bunch of texts and people seems to be an agreement that writerly autonomy in the historically francophone countries of the Great Lakes region (Rwanda, the DRC, and Burundi) is endangered. This lack of autonomy–according to the authors–threatens the creativity and the originality of literary production, ‘forcing’ artists to conform to a cookie cutter narrative. For Jean-Pierre Orban, stories emulate “a certain genre of tales about Africa” (115) in that they “reuse clichés and patterns of what has been written” (113). The participants generally bemoan the tendency of texts about the region to rehash images and themes of Africa “as Poverty Porn” like the child soldier, war, genocide, violence, and rape, rendering this literature “monochrome” and “trop figé” (“too fixed”) in the words of Mirlesse (198). 

Who is responsible for this narrative? During the Round Table #1, the Canadian-based Congolese novelist Blaise Ndala speaks to “the way the media paints the misery of Haiti or Africa” (49), and in the book’s preface the Congolese writer Lye Yoka hypothesizes that the literary production from the region “might be cannibalized by the dominant and dizzying political discourses always with their doublespeak and hypocrisy as their bread and butter” (14). But on the whole, the book takes aim at the role of NGOs in the production of discourse, especially those literary initiatives that are understood as stifling literary production in and about the region. A desire to break with this existing rhetoric fueled the literary event and subsequent publication. One of the organisers of the events and the co-editor of the book, Le Lay explains that the project emerged from the “inaugural assessment that  […] there are many social actors of the region who try to respond in their own way to this situation, by producing endogenous accounts of these crises” (28). In the introduction to the volume, she identifies “NGOs which are very present in the region and who solicit artists so that they can develop narrative creations most often centering on a pre-cut canvas or that draw on a specific vocabulary that is unique to them” (28-29).

As a way of countering this fixed imaginary, in the hopes of, as Lye M. Yoka describes,“going beyond the routines remote-controlled by certain NGOs, merchants of misery,” (14) Le Lay and Mirlesse used the same tactic: the production and publishing of creative writing. They coordinated an amateur literary prize on the subject of “l’écriture du conflit” (“conflict writing”) and the winners participated in the writing workshops with their texts published in this collection, Au-dessous du volcan. The solicitation and workshopping of literary pieces on the theme of conflict aimed to produce works that understood that theme in a more capacious way. Lye M. Yoka paraphrased Maëline Le Lay’s project, explaining that by “expanding the concept and even the reality as much as the truth of ‘conflict’” (16) the participants could contribute to “the construction of a real writerly subjectivity which would be liberated from what one might call the “dominant narratives’ about the region” (14).

Still from promotional video of the Rencontres littéraires at the Institut français de Goma.

The same preoccupation with autonomy and a broader, more abstract interpretation of conflict does seem to be limited to the organizers and the more “established” writers leading the creative writing workshops. With a few notable exceptions, most texts are set in an armed conflict and have a clear political message. For example, “Le gaz à effet de serre” by the slam poet Thierry Nkinzo Mihigo condemns climate change, “Les chemins de David” by Natacha Songore follows a senior bank executive cum rebel soldier who, in the brief moments leading up to an attack, reflects on the social injustices that led to his political awakening, and Kennedy Muhindo Wema’s cheeky “Ce différend énigmatique” recounts the dilemma faced by a Congolese soldier who survives a battle, only to find out that one of his prisoners is his first love. One story that deviates from these is Claudia Munyengabe’s “Ne m’enterre pas.” Fans of Kristen Roupenian’s macabre short story collection You Know You Want This will enjoy this text in which Pauline, a reformed ‘man eater’ (in the literal sense), refuses to consummate her nuptials. The ever-devoted wife poisons herself so as not to kill her husband during the throes of passion and orders her spouse to keep her dead body- which he continues to sleep with in the attic of their home

The figure of the politically engaged writer appears throughout the collection. In a particularly memorable story, “Le Bivouac de la milice” by Mathe Kisughu, a writer who laments his missing son rumoured to have joined an armed rebel group, must escape from his home that the dictator’s troops threaten to burn down. The text begins with father and son debating the utility of literature. Surly and dismissive, the son, who soon will leave to join an underground revolutionary group, quips, “[…] why waste time blackening pages, with stories that no one reads, or at least, that the majority cannot read[…]” (63)? to which the father answers, “I don’t waste time taking up the pen. Writing is just as–if not more–revolutionary than weapons” (64).  Joyeux Juwe Kazimbe depicts a young romantic, whose father forbids him from seeing his girlfriend à la Roméo and Juliette in “L’ombre du père.” Brought up on poetry, he reflects on his future as a poet and the aim of literature : “What to do? Become a poet? Take comfort in my quill […] Or, or else speak in the place of those who cannot speak (170)”. A recent high school graduate and voracious reader in Parfait Nzeyimana’s “Matricule 17111” must join the military, caught between his identity as a soldier and budding intellectual: “I wanted to be both strong and handsome, Rambo and Baudelaire, Einstein and Don Juan. Between Parfait, Julius Caesar and recruit number 17111, my heart was torn” (87). 

Another theme that runs throughout the book is that of foreign intervention in the region.  Authors, like Patrick Zézé in “Mwana Kongo”, make references to colonisation, specifically King Leopold and the Congo conference of 1884-1885. Zézé criticizes the moment when “certain people in the West […] decided to cut up our Africa into pieces” (123) and Blaise Ndala echoes this sentiment in his text, “Lettre au soldat que j’ai connu,” citing the “map drawn one day in Berlin” which created lasting national borders and divisions (249). The writers also critique more contemporary forms of foreign interference: like the American Army in “Ce différend énigmatique” by Kennedy Muhindo Wema, the UN peacekeeping missions which Thierry Nkinzo condemns in his poem “Le Gaz à effet de Serre,” “these prosperous countries/ who were not at all sincere” (119), and the French army, who Dominique Celis describes as the “matricidal sons of Mariannes and their motto Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. These colleagues in civil engineering of murder, and its negation” (182). Readers can draw powerful parallels between the texts: for example Maxime Kabemba Maneno’s story, “Une Lageri, je viens de nulle part,” which mentions German ethnologist Leo Frobenius’s “science of inferior races” (135) and Dominique Celis’s “Première lettre,” which condemns the “parade of foreign delegations coming to observe” African countries, mistaken for laboratories (183).

As the saying goes, save the best for last. The standout piece, “Lettre au soldat que j’ai connu,” by Blaise Ndala closes the collection. Written as a letter to his cousin Jeancy, his ‘blood brother’ and “twin,” who died in the army while on a reconnaissance mission, the text is an exercise in remembering in the face of “the Fatherland’s forgetfulness” (241). From visiting the monument to unknown soldiers, to asking a passing soldier if he knew his cousin, Ndala looks for traces of him everywhere in Goma on the shore of Lake Kivu, his last known address. Anyone who has answered that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night will appreciate how Ndala recounts the time he learned of his cousin’s passing. His skillful writing about grief focuses on poignant details during this painful conversation with his mother, such as her verbal maneuverings between French and Kikongo in order to avoid Lingala. She dodges Lingala since it is the language used in the military, and therefore she associates it with those responsible for Jeancy’s death. He writes 

“Mom jumps from one language to another like in every one of our telephone conversations, but the verbal no man’s land remains, this skipping over Lingala, Mom goes from the language of Maréchal Pétain to that of Pierre Mulele the marxist leader who long ago shook up our native Kwilu, resisting the best she can the Lingala dear to Maréchal-Leopard’s […] because it is all the same the language of the army” (239).

Still from promotional video of the Rencontres littéraires at the Institut français de Goma.

Moments like this, which reveal how the Congo’s fraught history manifests itself in everyday exchanges, pepper Ndala’s prose. Readers also get a taste of his wit and humour in this letter, at once melancholic and playful, thanks to his bevy of references, from Camus to Conrad, CNN and the UN. 

Despite the recurring theme of foreign intervention as well as the organizers’ own interest in writerly autonomy, there does seem to be an unspoken, yet obvious contradiction at the heart of this project: the institutional framework in which the publication, Au dessous du volcan, and the event, Les Rencontres littéraires de Goma, are ensconced. The official voice of the French diplomat, Alexandre Mirlesse,  starts  the introduction by quoting a speech by André Malraux (France’s first Minister for Cultural Affairs, serving from 1958-1969) heralding the birth of institutional francophonie (the ACCT, precursor to the OIF). This framing, along with the sponsors’ emblems on the back cover, situate the text within the scope of major French governmental institutions of cultural diplomacy. 

Le Lay’s assumption is that in soliciting literature– which she calls “biased literary stimulation”–foreign NGOs reduce texts to nothing more than “made to order productions” in which “the artist creator does not fully have all of their freedom to compose as they please and to convey what truly obsesses them, even what sets them on fire” (29). Given this assertion, readers such as myself may find themselves asking, but what about this literature that is solicited and supported by French governmental agencies?  

The encouragement of African literary production in the French language–specifically through amateur literary prizes and writing contests–has been a tool of French cultural diplomacy since before African independence movements to promote literacy through literature. While it remains important to interrogate the NGOization of African literature, it is surely just as generative to think about how foreign governments (through cultural diplomacy efforts) are implicated in similar power dynamics.

In spite of this blindspot, one can imagine a few different audiences for the collection with its eclectic mix of round table conversation transcripts and short stories: readers interested in contemporary popular/amateur literary production in Africa, or more broadly scholars of French-language African literature, particularly academics curious about how some of these new, up-and-coming voices like Roland Rugero (whose novel Baho! was translated into English and published in 2016) and Blaise Ndala (prizewinning novelist, author of two novels) theorize their own writing. Beyond the outward facing round table discussions geared toward a foreign academic audience, the creative writing in the collection seems intended for a more local readership. The collection showcases writing from under the volcano, which is to say, written from on the ground and in that sense the project is successful. Au-dessous du volcan questions the type of stories penned by European interlopers à la Livingstone, Conrad, Céline, Leiris or Kapuściński and privileges the insider’s perspective of writers from the Great Lakes region telling their own stories. 

Madeline Bedecarré is a visiting lecturer at Bates College.  A specialist of Francophone African literature and the sociology of culture, one of her main interests is the relationship between politics and literature. Her current book project explores the stakes of literary prizes and institutional francophonie.


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